Kyle Busch hoping to end 29-race drought as Cup Series rolls into Las Vegas
By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
LAS VEGAS — Kyle Busch is in a terrible slump, winless this Cup season and his 15-year streak of at least one victory a year in danger.
The reigning Cup champion struggled to contain his frustration after finishing second last week at Bristol to title favorite Kevin Harvick and his losing streak was extended to 29 races. Busch predicted his bid to win back-to-back titles will soon be over.
“We’ll be eliminated in the next round, so, don’t care,” Busch said after Harvick beat him at Bristol.
The second round of the playoffs begins today at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in the city where Busch grew up and where he and his older brother, Kurt, are currently featured on the side of the MGM Grand casino. It should be the perfect spot for Busch to break his slump, but he was blunt when asked if the No. 18 team is close to competing with Harvick and the title front-runners.
“No,” was all Busch replied.
Las Vegas marks the first race in a three-race second round that goes from the 1.5-mile standard oval to high-banked Talladega Superspeedway and then eliminates four drivers from the playoffs at the hybrid road course-oval “Roval” at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The diversity of tracks in the second round makes it the most challenging of the playoffs’ three knockout rounds, and Las Vegas is critical because a strong finish can ease pressure the next two weeks. In a city of gamblers, the best strategy Sunday might be to play it safe.
That’s a difficult position for
Busch, who feels intense pressure to run well at his home track. Las Vegas has rarely been good to him, though, and he’s got just one win in 18 career Cup starts.
Now his bid to become the first driver since Jimmie Johnson to win consecutive championships is on the verge of collapse.
He’s ranked 10th out of 12 playoff drivers and is statistically on pace with his 2014 season, one of the worst of his career. Busch won just once that year and tied a career-low with just nine top-five finishes. And, there’s only seven races remaining to preserve his streak of at least one victory a season since his 2005 rookie year.
If he indeed doesn’t make it through the second round, it will be the first time since that 2014 disappointment that Busch won’t race in the championship finale.
In this season of coronavirus protocols, Busch has been hampered in making the adjustments needed to get a car into victory lane. He’s struggled in traffic this year and gotten bogged down in single-file runs, unable to move forward.
Busch needs to be near the front to contend and gets his chance when the green flag flies at Las Vegas. Busch starts second alongside Harvick. He’s seen that Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. have been successful when their Toyotas get prime starting positions and is hoping things finally fall his way.
“Our teammates have been starting up front, they’ve been running up front and they’ve been doing a good job of keeping themselves in the mix on the intermediate tracks,” Busch said. “If we can continue to evolve and get ourselves up a little bit higher, then hopefully that will bode well for us, too.”
HARVICK CLEAR FAVORITE
Harvick has been in a class of his own with five wins in the last nine races. He won the playoff opener at Darlington and then again last week at Bristol — moving him to a career-best nine victories this season while cementing himself as the title favorite.
His challengers have been wary about this second round, but Harvick has tunnel vision and is taking it one race at a time.
“You just want to keep your mind as clear as possible. We’ve made a decision of how we want to think and what we want to talk about and pay attention to, and it’s us,” Harvick said. “I know that sounds selfish, but the thing that I can tell you is it’s way less mentally exhausting than worrying about where you need to have a good race and where you need to have a bad race.
“I don’t have the capacity to think more than one week ahead, anyway, and trying to overthink things just takes way too much space in my brain for me to function during the week.”
LOGANO LOOKING FOR A WIN
Joey Logano opened the season with two wins in the first four races, including a victory in the February stop at Las Vegas.
He hasn’t won since racing resumed in May but had a decent opening round to the playoffs with consecutive third-place finishes at Darlington and Richmond. He’s fourth in the standings and believes his Team Penske No. 22 can run with Harvick.
“I don’t think we’re that far off, to be honest with you. We’ve been pretty good here recently a clicking off quite a few top fives,” Logano said. “They’re not wins, I know. We haven’t won since the pandemic started. … We’ve made some big gains and put ourselves in position now to where we’re close to winning again.”
BIG BROTHER WANTS TO WIN AT HOME, TOO
The home track hasn’t been just as tough on Kurt Busch as it has his younger brother, and Busch is 0-for-21 at Las Vegas.
His numbers have all been down at the track, where he’s scored just five top-10 finishes and led only 108 laps. Busch hopes for a turnaround today.
“The Vegas track has definitely been one of the tough ones for me over the years with results and finishes not where I would have expected them to be,” the 2004 Cup champion said. “With Vegas, I always put that little extra hometown pressure on myself and I would love to win there.”
BRISCOE WINS PLAYOFF OPENER
Chase Briscoe routed the field in the Xfinity Series playoff opener for his eighth win of the season, the number he’s said should earn him a promotion to NASCAR’s top level.
Briscoe, in a Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing, won all three stages Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, then beat hometown driver Noah Gragson on a late restart to grab control of the Xfinity Series title race.
Briscoe led 164 of the 200 laps and earned an automatic berth into the second round of the playoffs. There will be a new Xfinity Series champion for the first time in three years this season and Briscoe is one of the favorites.
“An incredible car by everybody at Stewart-Haas. That made my job way too easy, honestly,” Briscoe said. “We have had a lot of wins this year, but this is by far our most dominant car.”
The Indiana native has been an inspiring story for underdogs and 2020 was in doubt until sponsorship developed during the offseason to secure a second season at SHR. Briscoe went into the year determined to win eight races and prove he deserves a spot in the Cup Series.
Briscoe joined Jack Ingram and Sam Ard with a record eight wins; both Ingram and Ard won eight apiece in 1984. Briscoe also won last week at Bristol for back-to-back victories.
Now that Briscoe has hit his mark of eight wins, he’s got his sights set on grabbing every trophy he can over the final six races of the season. He knew his No. 98 team was capable of a dominant season, which is why he felt comfortable making eight wins the mark to hit to argue his case for a Cup ride.
“I knew this team was fully capable of achieving that and even more,” Briscoe said. “It has been an unbelievable season and we still have a lot, six more wins that we can try to get and a championship. That is what we are going to try to do.”
Gragson, a Las Vegas native, finished second in a Chevrolet for JR Motorsports. He suffered a bloody nose in the middle of the race and it was bothersome over the final stretch. When a caution came out with 14 laps to go, Gragson got his shot to go head-to-head for the win with Briscoe.
It took Briscoe a full lap to take control on the restart, and Gragson had nothing for him. Briscoe had built a lead of more than six seconds over Austin Cindric before the late caution, Gragson came off pit road in second and had his only chance at Briscoe on the restart.
“Good day for us overall. I felt like we were really good, the best I’ve ever been here,” Gragson said. “I just didn’t have anything for the 98 — a lot of race cars out here and only one space shuttle.”
Cindric, the regular season champion, didn’t have as strong of a Ford as Briscoe, but still was running second before the final caution. Team Penske told him he should do the opposite strategy as Briscoe but the let Cindric make the final decision. Cindric followed Briscoe down pit road for the service but a slow stop cost him four positions.
Cindric finished sixth.
“Frustrated, man, I definitely don’t believe we deserved to finish where we did,” Cindric said.